CALCUTTA — Obscured by all the hoopla surrounding last month's landslide election victory of India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress-I Party was a major reversal for the Communists who control state govenment here in West Bengal.
For nearly a decade, leftist front parties, dominated by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, have controlled all levels of government in Calcutta and in the surrounding state of West Bengal, which has a population of 58 million.
In the 1980 national election, the party--one of India's three Communist parties--sent 28 members to Parliament from West Bengal, compared to only four for the nationally dominant Congress-I.
One of 'Red Forts' Like the state of Kerala to the southwest, which voted the Communists into power in 1957, West Bengal has been known as one of the "red forts" of Indian politics.
In 1971, West Bengal's leftists stopped a landslide vote for Gandhi's mother and predecessor, Indira Gandhi, at the state border.
The leftist front was considered impregnable here. The state's charismatic Communist leader, Jyoti Basu, was thought by many to be the second most important leader in India, behind Indira Gandhi.
In many ways, West Bengal and Calcutta, its capital, fulfilled a prophecy usually attributed to V.I. Lenin: "The road to world revolution lies through Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta."
However, in last month's national elections, the leftist leadership here and in Kerala was dealt a stunning blow. In fact, in Kerala, where the Congress-I won 13 parliamentary races compared to only one for the Communist Party of India-Marxist, it was a rout.
Near Miss With Unknowns In West Bengal, where the Congress-I had all but resigned itself to defeat by fielding a slate of largely unknown candidates, it was more of a near miss. Congress-I's representation in Parliament increased from 4 to 16, only two fewer seats than the Communists hold.
Other leftist parties held on to their West Bengal seats, for the most part, but Basu's party lost 10 seats in the state, including all seven in Calcutta.
Moreover, the vote difference between Congress-I and the Communists, which in 1980 was 3.5 million, shrank to only about 98,000 statewide. Congress-I leaders immediately urged Basu to resign so that new elections for the state assembly could be called to test Communist strength at the local and state levels.
"The CPI-Marxist may not publicly acknowledge that West Bengal is no longer their impregnable fortress," the Calcutta newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika said in an editorial, "but they know that neither their party nor the left front as a whole has the strength to withstand the Congress-I battering for long."
Basu, 71, a leading Bengali intellectual who joined the Communist Party while he was a law student in England, said that the main reasons for the leftists' setbacks were Congress-I domination of television and radio time and the national "sympathy wave" that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Still, Basu also blamed his own government for the losses, saying: "Our major losses were in the urban and industrial areas. There was a perception of no performance. We could not explain . . . why unemployment is growing, why there are transportation problems . . . electric power problems."
Of all the cities in the world, Calcutta may be the most severe testing place for any political party trying to stay in power. Hugely overpopulated, with between 8 million and 9 million people, burdened with refugees from neighboring Bangladesh, set down in an unhealthy place on the banks of the polluted Hooghly Channel of the Ganges River, Calcutta is an urban nightmare.
After West Bengal's partition in 1947 from East Bengal (East Pakistan until it became independent Bangladesh in 1971), industrial Calcutta was separated from the source of its raw materials, including the mainstay jute for its cloth mills. The British abandoned many of their factories here, and most new industries settled in Bombay or New Delhi.
It was in this depressed setting that the leftist parties built their base. When Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev visited the city in 1955, more than 2 million people gathered to see him. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it the largest public meeting in Indian history.
In the 1960s, when the Communists began to win elections, they were able to take advantage of widely perceived corruption and mismanagement in the Congress Party's state organization.
Last December's election was the first in which a substantial portion of the voters were too young to remember the old Congress Party governments--and their failings.
"The youth feel that they have no future prospect of employment here," Santosh Roy, the West Bengal Congress-I party secretary said. "The Congress Party has been restored in West Bengal because youths and housewives supported the Congress Party in masses."